When Onu walked into the hut with Afam’s soup steaming in a bowl, she noticed he didn’t want to discuss what his anger was about. He stood with his back to her, a clear sign of rejection. Tears welled in her eyes to see Afam like this. She could understand that he was in pain, he felt betrayed. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do or say to him to change things.
‘Afam, it wasn’t easy for me.’
Her voice cracked and he knew she was on the verge of breaking down in tears. Afam didn’t turn to look but he had a good idea of how sad his mother looked. The thought of her crying hurt him, but he wasn’t going to let his soft heart become a weakness on this issue. He stared fixatedly at the mud wall before him and tried to shut out every feeling of weakness for her.
Onu placed his soup on his mat and walked away with as little sound as she could make. She knew her son well, when he was ready to talk, he would come to her. Afam didn’t even notice his mother was gone until he turned around, hoping to see her standing there. The spicy smell of the egwusi soup engulfed the room and it made Afam’s tongue water and his stomach crunch. No matter how angered a man was, food was never to be put off, for even anger needed strength to be effective. Afam picked out the meat in the soup with his fingers and wolfed it down like he wouldn’t be getting another for a long time.
When the bowl was empty he decided it was in his place to demand an explanation. His mother hadn’t offered him any for all these years; perhaps if he didn’t ask he would never be told. He carried the bowl to the kitchen hut. Onu was there playing with her food because she didn’t have the stomach to eat. She was wondering what Esimai had told their son. When she noticed Afam’s shadow over her, she shook.
‘Mama, why didn’t you tell me all these years? He used to walk past our hut almost every morning. Why did I have to hear this from the wine tapper?’
Afam was so angry it dulled a lot of his senses. If he were thinking any more clearly he’d have noticed the surprise on his mother’s face. Onu gathered Esimai hadn’t told her son the whole truth. She wondered what Esimai had told Afam had happened to his father. It was as she wondered this that she saw what Esimai had really done by not telling her he was going to lie to Afam. He had placed the burden of the revelation on her shoulders. If she had mentioned anything that connected the wine tapper to Esimai, Afam would have found out the whole truth. She battled in her mind trying to decide what she was going to do. It was a question of truth or convenience. Morally, she owed him the truth, and the whole truth. These were events that moulded his life into what it was and what it would always be. But it wasn’t that easy to tell him the truth. There was no way to predict what changes it was going to make. Esimai hadn’t told Afam the whole truth and look how much it had changed all their lives. The thought of what might change if he knew everything scared Onu. What was going to become of her if in Afam’s anger he left her to find Esimai? If Esimai had left the village like Onu suspected, he wouldn’t have gone far, not with how slowly he moved these days. Afam would know that and it would only power his will to go looking for his father.
Onu figured it was most convenient to keep her mouth shut and let Afam blow off steam. No matter how mad he was feeling, with time he would come to forgive her. After all, just as he was all she had in this world, she was all he had too. Onu really wished she could tell her son everything he wanted to know, but the fear of his reaction imprisoned the secrets in her mind.
‘Afam, my son, I’m sorry I kept this away from you. When you were young I felt you didn’t have to know. You were not wise enough to handle the truth.’ Before Onu could finish Afam intercepted.
‘Then I grew into a man and you still kept the secret!’ His tone climbed with each word and for the first time Onu noticed his eyes lit with anger. Any thought of revealing the true story was now gone. There was no way she was telling him the truth; that would be giving him reason to vent his anger.
‘I was just afraid that you would spend your life searching for him.’ Onu admitted in a low tone.
‘You mean you were afraid that I would leave you for him?’ Afam asked.
Onu couldn’t hold it any longer. She allowed a tear-drop to roll down her face. Afam tried to act like he didn’t notice but he couldn’t. Onu looked at her son and she noticed the fierceness in his eyes disappear.
‘I’m so sorry. I just didn’t want to lose you. Can’t you see there is nothing else that makes sense in my life?’
Afam felt like walking over to his mother and holding her in a tight embrace, but he resisted the urge to do it. Later he would make up with her, not now. He needed her to know that he was hurt, even if it meant hurting her too.
‘You didn’t want to lose me? Mama, you were being selfish. You kept me all to yourself and robbed me of the truth. Mama, can’t you understand that this was the secret that made my life what it is today? I had the right to know him, Mama. It was my decision whether to walk the earth looking for him or not. You should never have made such a decision for me.’
Onu listened intently, taking in every word that Afam spoke. These were harsh realities to deal with, but realities nonetheless. It was Afam’s choice to leave her to go looking for his father, or to stay and forget about it. Onu just couldn’t risk him making what she felt was the wrong choice. Afam wasn’t done yet.
‘Do you realise that there are things I would have wanted to tell him but now I have to talk to the wind? Mama, it was my choice to make, not yours!’ Afam made his last statement with a type of finality that told his mother that he couldn’t stand anymore. Before she could say something to make him stay, he stormed out of the cooking hut. Afam’s eyes were so watery that if he as much as blinked tears would have escaped.
Onu wasn’t sure where Afam was going but she knew he was leaving her, at least for a while. Perhaps he was going to sit in the bush and think things through. Onu hoped that he would find it in his heart to forgive her. She thought of how he would feel to know that even after all this she failed to tell him the truth. This thought filled her conscience with guilt and it made her reconsider. Onu decided to tell him the truth, the whole truth. While the courage was still in her Onu paced her way to living the hut. When she stood at the entrance she noticed he was gone. So was his bow, quiver of arrows, and machete. She searched the room with her eyes and found that Afam’s battle charm was gone too. He only wore the red beaded bracelet in times of war.
Onu remembered that there was a battle at dawn. Aboh was attacking a small neighbouring village because they wanted control of some disputed land. It was a certified victory for Aboh. They outnumbered the enemies almost five to one and they planned a surprise attack as well. Onu decided to wait for Afam. On his return she would to tell him everything. As Onu walked into the hut to get some rest, Afam’s words echoed in her head: Now I have to talk to the wind – what was he talking about? Onu realised in her fright and worry she had failed to pick up what her son was saying. Esimai told Afam that he was dead. Onu shook her head. Spears and arrows did not make a man, did not define courage. It was heart, and Esimai didn’t have a lot of that. He chose the easy way out and dumped Afam on her lap. He was a coward.
* * *
After the episode with her father, Adaobi spent the rest of her day drowned in worries for Afam. She wondered what would become of him, and if he knew that her father would be trying to get him, to make him disappear forever. Adaobi never went into the details of what made her father the richest merchant in the village, not even to Afam. She was disgusted by the trade. What kind of man encouraged wars for the purpose of capturing slaves to be sold on to the oyibo? She hated his sense of morality whenever she thought about what he did. Her father was a sell-out to their people. The white man was funding intertribal wars by supplying guns, muskets, arrows, and wealth. After these wars the captives would end up on oyibo boats and would be taken away, condemned to a life of servitude. Adaobi hoped this fate was not going to befall Afam for she knew how much he dreaded it. She knew her father would be quick to find Afam wherever he was captured, and he would be even quicker to sell him into slavery. He would even arrange the capture himself. Onwa never traded Aboh people, but it was a question of his own morality, not one of law. Adaobi guessed he could shift his values on this occasion to get rid of this problem. He would throw in Afam as a bonus if the oyibo was not willing to pay. But the oyibo would be willing to pay well. Afam was “fit”, that was the word Adaobi heard them use for the strong-looking captives. She walked past the pit where her father kept the men for sale. You could hear faint cries, you could feel the pain and agony in the hearts of these fallen warriors. They were not of Aboh so Adaobi couldn’t understand most of the words they spoke. But she was sure some were asking for help, others shouting curses.
When Adaobi thought of Afam being trapped in this pit, it broke her heart. And what was his crime? Loving her was the only thing he ever did wrong, if that was a crime. She prayed that Afam would survive the battle, and then she prayed that he found a reason to leave the village. Maybe he would feel the urge to set out to find the father he never knew. Afam had told her before that he always felt like meeting his father would complete the missing pieces in his life. Adaobi knew the odds of Afam deciding to set out for his missing father were next to nothing, but it was all she had. Before anyone could see her in this state, she wiped her teary eyes and raised her head.
She was supposed to look her most beautiful this evening and her father had gone to extra lengths to make sure of that. Her hair was in small braids and she wore new clothes that defined her shape by pronouncing her hips and breasts. Adaobi told herself she was going to imagine it was Afam coming to see her tonight. It was only in that frame of mind that she could not fall apart as the hungry eyes of the prince she now greatly despised ran over her.
Chinelo was wishing her secret with her daughter would remain between them; the mere thought of the discovery frightened her in a way she couldn’t have ever imagined. There was still a lot of work to be done. The hair weaver and Afam had to be taken care of.
Adaobi wasn’t sure what she felt but she knew she didn’t want night to come. Once the kola nut was broken, she would have to get married to a man she didn’t love, a man she despised. A feeling of resentment for her father crept into her mind but she couldn’t show it, not tonight when she had to wear a smile. She longed to see Afam, to hear his voice speak words of comfort to her. His words to her were not just words. They were pieces of emotion she could hold onto, especially in hard times like this. She listened in the wind but she was greeted with silence. Afam was not here. She had to walk in this darkness all by herself.
Onwa sat in his private room in the hut. He was thinking of all the ways he could make the hair weaver and Afam disappear. Whatever he decided to do had to be done with extreme caution and immediate effect. On this occasion he couldn’t afford accusing fingers being pointed at him, even if no one spoke. Onwa also thought about his wife Chinelo and his daughter Adaobi. They were lying to him and he knew it. He could tell from the very moment Adaobi cried at his feet. He struggled with coming to terms with the truth, but he finally did. After much thought he realised that he had to pretend he believed them. If this was a lighter issue, Onwa would have laughed at how wise Chinelo and her daughter thought themselves to be. They thought they had fooled him, kept a secret from him, but in truth it was he who had fooled them. Did Chinelo think he sent her to check her daughter because he trusted her so much? Couldn’t she see that he sent her because he knew how much she loved her daughter? He knew Chinelo was going to lie to protect her Adaobi. Yes, that was what he hoped for. He wanted her to lie to him because this marriage could not be cancelled. After Chinelo looked at Adaobi, the hair weaver was told that Adaobi was still a virgin and was warned against spreading rumours. That would keep her mouth shut for a while, hopefully long enough to buy Onwa enough time to make her disappear. How foolish was she to accept bribes from Onwa, and still live in his compound? Very foolish indeed. Afam, the hair weaver, Chinelo, and Adaobi, respectively or all together, their wisdom was nothing compared to Onwa’s. They were but mere pawns in this game they played.
Onwa trusted Chinelo to take care of things. She would have to find a way of keeping this from the Obi and the prince. He believed in her wisdom that much – she would find a way to bury the secret because she couldn’t pay the price of exposure. Onwa needed her to live in fear, that was the only way she would think hard and deeply enough to come up with a solution to the problem. What better way to keep her on her toes than making her believe she was hiding the truth from him? All in all, things were going just as planned for the merchant. He rose to his feet and walked out to find Ofili. Onwa whispered a few words into the loyal assistant’s ear and with a slight nod to show acknowledgement, Ofili disappeared. He walked at his usual slow pace that gave the impression he had nowhere important to be, but those who knew better were aware that when Ofili was not in Onwa’s compound, someone somewhere was in danger, most likely grave danger. Tonight it was Afam’s name that was whispered into the assistant’s ear.
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